Atlin, BC : Hardship and Hope

You have to really want to go to Atlin.  It is British Columbia’s most northernmost community; but it is an end-of-the-road stop that can only be reached from the Yukon. The road leaves the Alaska Highway and dips south for 94 kilometres – one way in and one way out. Until 1951, there was no road at all – residents travelled to their homes by boat.  It is well worth the drive – this is one of Atlin’s many jaw-dropping views:

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No-one lived here, other than the nomadic Taku River Tlingit people, until discoveries of gold at nearby Pine Creek in 1898.  Ten thousand gold-seekers arrived and set up camp in nearby Discovery. At the height of gold fever there was this little town, but like so many gold rushes in the north, once the gold left, so did the residents.

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What remains today are a few fallen structures and a single intact cabin.

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Photos and a plaque tell the desperate story of the James family trying to survive in an uninsulated cabin during a winter that hit a record-breaking -83 degrees.

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Beth and her little brother Tommy standing on the cabin porch.

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A winter scene that would otherwise be so beautiful, but without adequate housing, clothing and food, caused great suffering and death.

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Atlin’s Pioneer Cemetery tells a fascinating story about those difficult early days. I know it sounds ghoulish, but I love visiting cemeteries – I find it informative and oddly peaceful.  You can often figure out a part of the history of a place by strolling among the tombstones and Pioneer Cemetery has a lot of stories to tell.

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The cemetery was opened in 1899 until 1990. So many buried there died young, under tragic circumstances. Many of the headstones state nationality and the cause of death.

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Sadly, a number of infants and young children did not survive the isolation and hardship.
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Can you imagine dying of starvation? Others died in mining accidents or drowned.

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This one intrigued me – no faded wooden headstone for the “Gentleman Adventurer.”  I’m imagining pith helmets and porters – and a ripe old age as the reward for a gentlemanly life well-lived.

A glimpse into the lives of the hardy souls that paved the way for adventurers yet to come.

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Today’s Atlin has a population of 400 artists, entrepreneurs, and assorted characters. You get the feeling that anything can happen here.

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This was the sight that greeted us as we pulled into the provincial campground. A burned-out truck festooned with police crime scene tape felt all the more menacing due to the recent murderous events in British Columbia. We wouldn’t have stayed but the one other camper there (a relaxed Arizonian) told us it was an accident, not foul play.

A couple from Colorado was just beginning their trip to Alaska, when a jerry can of gas in the back of their truck ignited and exploded into flames. Their trailer was unharmed (as were they), but it was a bit hectic bringing the fire under control. They then had to deal with having their trailer towed and flying back to Colorado to sort out everything else. Handling those logistics from a remote location with no cell service and being highly stressed over a freak accident – I can’t imagine it.

After one night there, we found another campground in town that overlooked the lake and spent the remainder of our visit there very happily enjoying the view.

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Atlin is unincorporated, which means there is no government and it is largely run by volunteers. This is a town of restless souls, tough survivors and resourceful and enterprising residents who are all in it together – firefighting, search and rescue, ambulance service, recreational activities, historic building upkeep, Meals-on-Wheels, campground upkeep, etc. etc. – all unpaid work done by residents who love their community and work hard to keep it running well.

Naturally, there is gossip! Not everything meets with unanimous approval and where there are 400 residents, there are likely 400 opinions. We took a guided walk with Patricia, a 25-year resident with a photographic memory and a sly take on the town’s activities.

This unusual structure, now owned and occupied by a New Zealand man, began as a “healing centre” (Patricia’s quotes). The original owner built in the pyramid style to draw on the earth’s energy that is apparently abundant in Atlin, but after a little controversy, the centre closed.

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As we travelled through the Yukon, we were surprised to see that many uninhabited but historic buildings were left intact; they had not been torn down. We found the same “living museum ” quality in Atlin. This town suffered through two disastrous fires, one in 1914 and again in 1916. Perhaps that is part of the reason for hanging on to their history.

The old morgue.

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The old jail was once in Discovery, but moved to Atlin.

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Otherwise, there are a number of historic buildings that are now private residences or re-purposed for other businesses.

The old hardware store is now a private residence. You can’t beat the view, but would you want people like us peering in your windows  every day?

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A former storefront that is now a colourful little home that uses the heat and sun from the front window to grow tomatoes.

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The old Globe Theatre. It was built in 1917, as part of a great tourist boom that lasted until 1936. The stage was also used for school plays and dances, but when the “talkies” came out, a hand-cranked projector was installed. Today, it serves as an event venue and shows movies twice a week.

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There is a limited amount of alcohol available at the general store, but until 1999, Atlin had their very own handsome Tudor-style liquor store. It opened in 1931 and served for 70 years, but then, in a droll understatement,  “the government decided to close it in 1999, over strong protest from the towns’ people.”

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John Garrett, a prominent cricket player from England, came to Atlin in 1910 to mine gold and in 1917, he opened this dry goods store.
Today it is operated by a young couple; part of a group of young entrepreneurs who are finding ways to make their living in Atlin.

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Stephen was excited to find the Atlin Mountain Coffee Wagon on the lakefront. The owners have created a demand for fresh-roasted coffee – there is always a lineup, and every Thursday they drive two hours to the Whitehorse farmer’s market.
The young woman pouring coffee also works part-time at another business in town. Her partner is here for the summer to work in Atlin’s still-active gold mines; their story is typical.

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The old courthouse is now a combination art gallery and library. The library is only open four hours a week – from 2-4 on Saturdays and Sundays. There is, however, a huge pile of free books on the table in the hall. The art gallery offered a beautiful collection of local art for sale. We chatted with the volunteer, a Brazilian woman who moved here years ago, but admitted that she doesn’t stay for the winter.
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The Blacksmith shop is the original, but the current owner is trained as ferrier, but with an absence of work in that field, he turned his artistic hand to working with metals.

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Most Atlin homes have a healthy woodpile in front.

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A couple of idyllic northern scenes.

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Atlin Lake is the largest freshwater lake in British Columbia, at four miles wide and 85 miles long. Most of the lake and Atlin Provincial Park are only accessible by boat or plane.  The lake is deep and very cold as it is fed from Llewellyn Glacier. This was as close as we could get to the glacier.

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When we asked in town about buying drinking water, we were directed to a natural spring just outside of town. It doesn’t look like much, coming out of a rusty old spout, but oh boy.  If I was younger, I would say Best.Water.Ever.
But since I’m not, I will just say I wish I could drink water like this every day of my life. Sweet. Cold. Pure.

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These are some of the lake views that we were able to access from the road.

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And so our trip to the Yukon is over. As we drove out of Atlin, we saw a yearling grizzly by the side of the road, which I took as a sign.  We need to return again and for longer and farther – west to Alaska, north to Tuk. Now that we’ve seen a grizzly, we want to aim for a polar bear.

The Yukon was everything we had hoped for and more. The people were wonderful, the scenery beyond description and as for the mosquitoes? We’ve had way worse bug attacks in Ontario. We are reluctantly heading south, but I’ll leave you with one final image – something we did not see on our entire trip, as we couldn’t stay up until midnight.

In mid-August in northern British Columbia, the sun sets at 10:30.

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Thanks so much for joining us – it really means a lot. We look forward to meeting up again in the early winter – destination still being discussed!